Thursday, November 27, 2014

"The Australian Dream...or Nightmare:" A talk by poet Rod Usher at the University of Barcelona

As part of the Tricontinental Lecture Series 2014, this Monday and Tuesday there will be talks by Extremadura-based Australian poet and writer Rod Usher, with readings from his new collection, Convent Mermaid.


Department of English and German Studies
Australian Studies Centre
Faculty of Philology
University of Barcelona (UB)
Gran Via, 585
08007 Barcelona, Spain

1st December, at 8.00 in Room 2.2 and at 2.30 in Room 3.1.
2nd December at 12.30 in Room 3.1.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"'Swindler' Gypsies slam Spain's new dictionary"

[Two members of Spain's Gypsy community cast their ballots in European Union elections in 2009. 
File photo: Cristina Quicler/AFP]

"Roma rights groups are to protest against the decision by Spain's Royal Language Academy (RAE) to include a definition of a 'gypsy' as a 'swindler' in their new official dictionary..."

Read more from source here.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Friday, November 7, 2014

The things we eat (and how social class decides)

"Do the rich and poor eat the same? Do our incomes determine our diet? Today, who is overweight? 

Although often, and from certain quarters, the call for healthy and wholesome food is viewed with disdain, as “a fad” “posh”, “hippy” or “flower power” the reality is rather different than these short-sighted comments imply. To defend ecological, local, peasant food is most 'revolutionary'. "

Read more from this article by Barcelona journalist and activist, Ester Vivas here.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

"When government is sport" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

I don't often think about Australia.

I was born there, grew up there and, until 15 years ago, I lived there. It's almost become a (very) foreign country to me but recently it has crept into my thoughts again.

This remaining ember of interest in a place, which many people here in Europe tell me is "very far away," hasn't been prompted by anything in particular.

I've just noticed that some of the reasons that made me want to leave it are still very much alive.

In Australia, there is compulsory voting in "federal" elections and you are likely to be fined if you don't go to vote.

Twelve months ago this island continent of almost 22 million people elected a new government with a leader named Tony Abbott, who is without any doubt the most conservative individual to ever take up the office of Prime Minister in the history of the nation.

The odd thing about this is that Australians themselves have not typically been thought of as conservative.

Historically, the best of the traits that generally marked the average "Aussie" were tolerance and fair-mindedness with an anti-establishment streak. If the men and women of any area of the world can accurately be said to have particular characteristics (and I often doubt that) it is probably in Australia where it is less likely to be the case, given that it is a country that has always been populated from immigrants.

Aside from that, you'd expect that in a nominally democratic country the national government would reflect both the wishes of the people and the broad values of its people.

From a distance, it seems to me that in the last few decades many Australians have in fact become more money and property obsessed, more dismissive of the "unproductive" arts industries, more inward-looking and more easily manipulated by politicians scare campaigns.

In other words, they are now more conservative than ever before.

In this, Australians are not unusual though. The same accusation could be made against many other societies.

I think that a big part of the change in Australia is that interest in social and political causes is now terribly low across the populace. This partly comes from being a relatively new country with only a century or so of homegrown history but, even more so, it comes from the way politics is reported in the mainstream media.

Whenever I visit Australia I am struck by how much the governing of the country is portrayed as merely a battle between the two leaders of the two major parties - a kind of boxing match or two-horse race.

Sport in almost all its forms is easily the biggest element of culture across the land.

There is nothing that comes close to it for prime time attention or public discussion, so it is probably not surprising that Australians are drip fed poll-driven, ultra short-term political issues (often tax-related) that all turn on how they affect the leaders popularity or approval ratings.

In a former life (for a few months) I worked for a local Canberra politician - that rare creature, the principled and independently-minded one - and it was clear to me even back then that in the months of actual election campaigning the only figure who really mattered was the party's chief candidate for the highest office.

When newspapers, TV, and radio are all in the hands of only two major companies this problem is made worse.

This has been the situation in Australia for more than two generations and the dominant, apathetic attitude towards any public concern that does not affect the hip-pocket nerve means that minor parties stay minor.

Combine all this with the fact that, just like the USA and UK for example, both the two major groupings are as conservative as the majority of their voters.

We have ended up with a situation where politics is a game.

The name of the game is getting your hands on the levers of power and keeping them there, at any cost.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, November 2014.]

Thursday, October 30, 2014

"9 year old Spanish boy becomes Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year"

"Since 1964, the National History Museum in London has been organizing their annual Wildlife Photographer Of The Year contest.

This year, the Grand title winner in Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year, which includes photographers up to 17 years of age, was Carlos Perez Naval – a 9-year-old boy from Spain."

Read more from source here.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Europe's secret trade deal

One of those moments when our European Parliament members are actually crucial to the future of both the UK and wider Europe...

"A shady deal is being negotiated in secret right now. It could permanently privatise the Britsih public health system and allow big corporations to sue European governments if they don't like our laws (such as simply raising the minimum wage.)
It's called the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership, or TTIP for short, and this EU-US trade deal is one of the most dangerous ever written.

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have the power to scupper it. But first they need to feel the pressure from the people they represent - us, the public.
Can you add your name to a huge EU-wide petition and help convince them? Click here to sign or just read more."

Friday, October 3, 2014

"Poor doors" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

When I was a kid and just starting to try and understand the adult world I used to hear my parents and other grown-ups make what seemed to be jokes about the "tradesman's entrance." 
I eventually learned that these words were a kind of sexual slang for the anus but were also more literally "the side or back door of a large house, used, especially in the past, by people delivering goods who were not allowed to use the main entrance at the front of the house."
Now though, another somewhat similar kind of entry/exit is becoming common in new apartment blocks in those two western-world trendsetters cities of New York and London. Tenants in these buildings must use two different entrances, depending on whether they live in the cheaper flats or the expensive part of the accommodation.

New York mayor Bill de Blasio has stated his opposition to what some of the city's residents have called "poor doors" although his administration has approved a number that have already been planned and built. 

Arguing in their favour, David Von Spreckelsen, senior vice president at US property developers Toll Brothers was reported as saying "You have politicians saying how horrible these back doors are. I think it’s unfair to expect very high-income homeowners who paid a fortune to live in their building to have to be in the same boat as low-income renters, who are very fortunate to live in a new building in a great neighborhood." 

The mayor of London, Boris Johnson is refusing to ban poor doors despite an increasing number of developments in the English capital having so-called "alternative access." Even bicycle storage spaces, rubbish disposal facilities and postal deliveries are also being separated in some residential complexes. 

One argument has been that doing so keeps construction costs down but in New York there are financial incentives to include "affordable" flats in the same location as luxury ones. So it is now apparent that architects are too often entirely at the mercy of owners and investors and will do whatever is necessary to keep them happy.

In central London there is another phenomenon that is becoming more publicised. 

Outside several housing buildings and supermarkets, sharp metal spikes have been put into the concrete in the corner of the doorway outside, clearly as a way of preventing homeless people from sleeping there. One charity says this has actually been a common practice for over a decade and I recently saw a photo of a progressive activist pouring liquid concrete to cover over these metal studs.

It's no coincidence that at this very same time the UK Border Agency has recently admitted that it is working on plans for fast-track passport lanes for travellers of "high economic value" (ie. rich) at British airports. 

Supposedly this is needed so that they do not have to wait in the queue like the rest of the species. 

I'm not pretending that there are not more significant problems in our world at this moment but poor doors, anti-homeless studs and immigration lines that divide people according to the size of their bank balance are all symptoms of a sickness, a backward habit of mind.

After all the public talk is done and the justifications have been made, these things end up encouraging lesser treatment of those without the good fortune to be wealthy. 

When the smaller details of life of are changed - doors, queues, public places - it creates less public resistance to the idea of changing bigger details. 

In this way, schools or health services can be separated along class lines, without us really noticing.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, October 2014.]

Saturday, September 27, 2014

International meeting of expats to discuss Catalan independence question

"An event is to be held on October 1 at 7:30pm at the Fabrica Moritz in Barcelona: a discussion among the expat community about the independence of Catalonia and how it affects [expats] in particular, followed by a networking session to relax and chat more informally.

The panel discussion will include Maarten de Jongh, Corporate Finance Advisor, originally from the Netherlands; Krys Schreiber, International Press and Communication Consultant, originally from Germany; Martha Moreo, Business Administration and Musician, originally from Argentina of Italian origin and it will be chaired by Liz Castro, editor of What’s up with Catalonia?, originally from the United States.

There is a $5 cover charge at the door which includes two beers, and covers the expenses of the hall.

See flyer poster above for more general information."

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Homeless in Barcelona

Matthew Tree

Matthew Tree's beautiful, simple opinion piece in El Punt Avui on the weekend...

"Yolanda Aguila lives on the street - on my street, in fact. I started talking to her a week ago. (For seventeen weeks she has had no home).
She did live in an apartment with other people until the council made an inspection and the owner - instead of doing the renovations necessary to get a new certificate of habitability - made them all move out.
Therefore, Yolanda is newly homeless. In fact, when you talk to her, if not for the fact that the conversation takes place on a piece of sidewalk occupied by her and her only suitcase, you would not guess that she has no fixed address.
Despite a difficult past (taking antidepressants) and poor health (suffering from fibromyalgia and calcification of the bones) she is doing (very) well, mentally.
She is 45 years old, likes historical novels (now for example, she is reading Victus by Albert Sánchez Piñol) and eats regularly, thanks to a bar that gives her unsold sandwiches every day.
Yolanda tries to give some of this food to other people who are living in her area without a roof over their heads, but most of them do not want to eat, only to drink, in an attempt, she guesses, to kill themselves slowly.
She has tried every charity, but most just offer a meal or clothes when what you really need back, above anything else, is a room to rent.
Life on the street for her is especially uncomfortable because she suffers from diseases. The last time I saw her, she was crying in frustration.

How is it that this woman is on the street when it costs so little to get her off the street? 

If Alícia Sánchez-Camacho [the leader of the Catalan branch of Spain's ruling Popular Party] - who says that we must confront the real problems of the people - sold one of her black crocodile skin handbags, there would be enough money to get a room for Yolanda Aguila.

Anyway, if anyone has any suggestions please contact me through El Pinu/Avui at

Sunday, September 21, 2014

W.H.O. targets a trans fat-free Europe

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called for a complete ban on trans fats throughout Europe as part of a new action plan on diet and health.

More at source here.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Season of free Australian films in Barcelona

This week is the start of an Australian Film Season, hosted by Barcelona's RMIT in conjunction with ASBA (the Australia Spain Business Association.)

The season comprises 10 films. There will be one film each week, on Thursdays at 7.30pm, with the exception of 2 October.

The premiere will take place this Thursday 18 September at 7.30pm, and will be attended by the Australian Ambassador to Spain, Ms Jane Hardy. The screening will be followed by a cocktail reception.

The screenings will take place at RMIT in C/Minerva 2. This street runs off Diagonal and is very close to Passeig de Gracia.

Admission is free to all screenings.

The list of films and their dates appear below...

18/9 Priscilla Queen of the Desert 
25/9 Picnic at Hanging Rock 
9/10 The Year of Living Dangerously 
16/10 Lantana 
23/10 Rabbit Proof Fence 
30/10 Gallipoli 
6/11 The Lighthorsemen 
13/11 Wake in Fright 
20/11 Breaker Morant 
27/11 Animal Kingdom

Personally, I highly recommend Lantana. Though I haven't seen Rabbit Proof Fence or Wake in Fright, they are many other people's favourites.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, visits Jerusalem's Wailing Wall

The trip was made [last weekend] by a group made up of Spanish political parties, Izquierda Plural (with six Euro deputies) and Podemos (with five).

They visited Ramala after Israel had denied the delegation entry to Gaza two days earlier.

The delegation held meetings with Palestinian leaders, among them the Prime Minister of the United Nation Transitional Government, Rami Hamdala, and with the top Palestinian diplomat, Raid al Malki.

The group also met with Israeli pacifists and left-wing groups such as Rabbis for Democracy, and they visited the old city of Jerusalem.

More from original source here.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

"Legislating liberties" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

Photo: Javier at [sic]
While we were (hopefully) enjoying sun and slumber over the summer it was easy to miss some disturbing international developments (or should I instead call these events disturbing steps back towards some of the worst aspects of the previous century.)

In a ruling barely even mentioned by most mainstream media (and opposed by the Obama White House) the Supreme Court of the USA declared that "companies whose shares are held by a small number of shareholders can refuse to provide health care plans that include contraception coverage, if they have a religious objection." 

This decision is important largely because it logically means that corporations – not only individuals – have the right to religious freedom. It also creates situations where they can legally exercise this freedom at the expense of those who do not own business, ie. working people. 

Meanwhile the same USA has re-formed it´s diplomatic alliance with previously "evil" Iran, who are also working hard to undermine women´s rights.

There, the national leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is heading the charge to put a ban on vasectomies and other birth control surgeries. 

His reasoning is that the population of his country needs to be doubled so that "national identity" becomes stronger. 
Proposed laws have already been approved that would throw doctors who perform these kinds of operations into prison for five years.

Closer to our part of the world, it is apparent that intolerance against many minority groups (including Jews and Gypsies) is on the rise across Europe. 

The latest example of this trend is a recent European Court of Human Right's verdict that upheld a French law banning the wearing of the [Muslim] full-face veil in public.
The vague use of "security concerns" as the rationale for the ban makes it clear that the issue is still being used (particularly by right-wing politicians) as a distraction from political failings.
My understanding is that Muslim women are happy to show their face for an identity or passport check, provided this is done with another women only in a private area. This is a very simple request to accommodate as a matter of routine.

Personally, I just don’t accept that having a law against covering your face means that people will not do it when they are about to commit a crime, as those advocates of the new law argue.
Let’s say I’m going to rob a bank. (I may have to actually do this if I don't get a pay rise soon.) Do I decide to not cover my face to avoid my identity being recognized through the security cameras simply because there is a law against it? 

No, instead a robber will simply break two laws instead of just one because they believe they will not get caught anyway.

To my mind, there’s way too much public debate about clothing and not enough discussion of the other factors involved in religion and discrimination.

To me, the hijab/niqab/face covering debate is a trivialisation of the bigger issues. Surely, what someone wears is largely a personal choice, except where women are ‘forced to cover-up’ to varying degrees.

Some Muslim women are in fact much more interested in improving their everyday rights than they are about how much they cover or don’t cover of their heads and faces.

The veil gets media and public attention because it is such an easily visible thing in our fashion-conscious times, as opposed to the more dramatic health and quality of life threatening problems such female genital mutilation (which is also still practised by some non-Muslims, such as Coptic Christians in Egypt as well.)

Clearly, a law should exist to protect women who want to defy those who want to force them to dress against their will. 

Equally though, another law should exist allowing women to cover as much as they like, whether any of us thinks that hiding a face is a sad reflection of a culture or not.
The result of any banning of the veil is very likely to be that more Muslim women are kept at home by their controllers: extremist, fundamentalist men. 

This leads very rapidly to a situation where a law that is supposed to make Islamic women somehow more free actually has the opposite effect.

Sometimes I think that social progress is just a thing of the past.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, Sept. 2014.]

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Down syndrome, Dawkins and doubt

Even the greatest have intellectual blind spots.
I regard Richard Dawkins as having one of the most brilliant minds of our time but I think he was wrong to say what he did this week. He has given a kind of apology/clarification but I'm still unconvinced about his key point, which was...

"if your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare."

I've spent time around teenagers with Down syndrome and they certainly did not strike me as being especially unhappy, and often seemed quite a bit more happy than many others their age.

I worked with some teenage students with the syndrome during my teacher training in the 1990's and have very fond memories of two kids in particular. Jason was a big, quiet guy who loved soccer and his brother. His favoured response to most questions was "Nuh. Nothin'..."
Mary was a lively and flirtatious girl who had a huge crush on Australian game-show host Larry Emdur. She always insisted that I sit next to her because she believed I looked like her idol.

Here is one woman's beautiful and moving account of the joys of having a brother with Down's syndrome.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Australian review of "Outlaws" by Cercas

<i>Outlaws</i>, by Javier Cercas.

In the Australian (mainstream) media this month was this review of Javier Cercas’ latest novel, Outlaws.

"Cercas captures Spain in transition from the tyranny of Franco to democracy, through an intense exploration of love and hate, loyalty and betrayal."